Swamped by Backstory

January 17, 2010 at 9:46 PM | Posted in Writing | 3 Comments

It happens to me all the time.

I’ll be writing away, happy as a clam, and all of a sudden Character A, who’s really only a minor character, will waltz in and dump enough backstory on me to write a book.

Which, of course, is exactly what I’m doing. I’m just not writing that book.

Even though that book sounds pretty darn interesting.

And that thing they just told me does sort of relate to something in the current story, and it is really a cool tidbit of information, and it wouldn’t be too hard to just mention – STOP.

Step away from the keyboard.

Is that really relevant? Does the reader really need to know that Minor Character A had a pet rock named Angus?

No, they probably don’t.

Maybe this is just me, but I constantly have to remind myself that certain scenes and/or conversations may be superfluous. They add to my already-astronomical word count and no matter how interesting they may be, they don’t really do much to advance the plot.

Of course, backstory is all well and good when presented properly. When dealing with an MC or another major character (like the LI), revealing a bit of the character’s backstory can be good for the book. But when minor characters start inundating us with their life stories, things get bogged down. And when things get bogged down, readers get bored.

So, I have developed a list of rules to keep myself from plumping up my word count any more than I already do.

  1. I shall have two* and only two major characters**. If the character who is telling me about the time they stuck a bead up their nose in preschool is not one of those two characters, then what they are telling me should probably not be included in the story. Even if the bead-in-nose story had a really funny ending.
  2. If the bead-in-nose story does belong to one of my major characters I will still think carefully before including it because it may so happen that it is still irrelevant and not entertaining enough to warrant the page space. Signs that it is relevant include the event providing some explanation as to why something in the current story is the way it is, and/or having had a longstanding effect and thereby contributing to the character’s current mental state/personality/character traits. (i.e. character’s severe phobia of things entering his/her nasal region)
  3. The only time a minor character’s backstory may be mentioned is when it directly relates to and/or affects the course of the plot. (i.e. When Minor Character D can ever-so-conveniently pick the lock on the dungeon door at a crucial point in time*** because her parents were locksmiths, it is acceptable and even advisable to have mentioned this previously via some witty anecdote or amusing scenario.)
  4. If the backstory is irresistibly interesting and the character it belongs to absolutely will not shut up, I will write it down in a separate document and save it there. This way my character(s) will hopefully be happy and I will have their backstories stashed away in case I ever need to refer to them.

* Adjust this number to suit each individual book
** Major characters are characters who are present and active for at least 75%**** of the story.
*** Disclaimer: having a minor character save the day at a crucial point in time may not be the best way to go about things, plot-wise.
**** I made that number up.

And that’s it. Hopefully I’m not the only one who ever has this problem. :)

– Becca Cooper (AKA Elusive)


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  1. Love this post! My characters like to info dump on their backstory very cleverly hidden in dialogue. They digress to unimportant matters. I must shut them up. I will take your advice on having them blabber on a separate document. Wish me luck. ;)

  2. Awesome post, great tips Elu! I don’t have that much a problem with backstory, mostly because my characters usually aren’t fleshed out that well. *sigh*

    And I LURVE using footnotes! Whooo, footnotes :)

  3. I am having THE most difficult time with minor characters in my current WIP. It’s usually not a problem for me, b/c my characters world is a little smaller, but this WIP involves a team sport. So I’m not sure how NOT to include several minor characters. That wasn’t a huge problem, until all of them starting clamoring for attention as well. Good idea, putting the minor characters’ backstory in a separate document. Maybe then they’ll stop being so selfish :)

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